There is a paradox at the heart of liberalism that constantly threatens to covert itself into a straightforward contradiction. Political liberalism is the creed that society shall be governed by no one creed, that is, the insistence on a uniform agreement to respect plurality.
As a paradox, this insistence is a productive tension internal to liberal society itself. But to maintain it as a paradox, it must be carried through thoroughly. Liberalism must be the creed that doubts its own particular formulation at every juncture, and yet confesses itself. Liberalism must accept, as a part of pluralism, factions that are illiberal, and yet demand civil engagement from all participants.
When the balance of liberalism collapses, one of the two poles of the paradox comes to dominate, and what is produced is either liberal relativism or hegemonic liberalism.
In liberal relativism, the centrifugal forces of pluralism are allowed to tear apart the common fabric of social life. In hegemonic liberalism the “liberal” society itself, its symbols and its values, become absolutized in a way that destroys the possibility of critique and renders other symbols and values (even some which are amenable to liberalism) as foreign and dangerous: liberalism becomes illiberal.
The seductiveness of hegemonic liberalism has been illustrated by two recent news stories.
If properly juxtaposed, these stories reveal a great deal about the complexity of modern life in a liberal society. Unfortunately, especially if treated independently, these stories can also be used to support hegemonic liberalism by constructing a picture of the world in which liberalism is under siege externally from the religious foreigners and internally from a racial minority.
Desecrating the Prophet
On Sunday, May 3, 2015 gunfire sounded outside of a Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas. In January, five months earlier, the location had been the site of an event titled “Stand with the Prophet Against Terror & Hate.” The organizers and participants at that conference saw their goal as training people to counter negative depictions of Islam. As one participant stated: “We’re not here to fight, we’re not here to argue. We’re just here to show that we’re Americans too.”
The event was protested by more people than were participating in the conference. Pamela Geller, a noted anti-Islam activist and head of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, led the protest which was premised on the claim that participants in the conference were neither peaceful nor American. As one protester reported: “We’re here to stand up for the American way of life from a faction of people who are trying to destroy us.”
Ironically given the claims of the protesters, it was not the conference participants who kept the ‘conflict’ going. Rather, not having gained any significant push-back from her original protest of the peace conference, Geller decided to escalate the situation. The May 3 event at the conference center was carefully designed to offend as many Muslims as possible.
The “Draw the Prophet” event offered $10,000 to the participant who best (most egregiously?) satirized the central figure of the Islamic faith. Two Muslim males took Geller’s bait. Elton Simpson, 30, and Nadir Hamid Soofi, 34, showed up at the event in body armor and opened fire. Both were shot dead. One security guard was wounded.
The story fit all too easily into a pattern that we have become familiar with. As the New York Times reported: “what took place in a suburban Texas parking lot near a Walmart has pointed up the volatile tensions between the West’s embrace of free expression and the insistence of many Muslims that depiction of the Prophet Muhammad is a sacrilege.” And that would be an easy enough pill to swallow if it weren’t for another freedom of speech story that was happening at the same time.
Desecrating the Flag
Our second story begins when Eric Shepherd, a college student, walked on an American flag as a part of a protest at Valdosta State University, in Georgia on April 17, 2015. As Shepherd stated during the protest, he understood the flag to represent the history of white supremacy and racism in America. Shepherd’s language echoed the global, racially bifurcated vision of Malcolm X, wherein Christianity, whiteness, and America come to represent oppression.
After Shepherd walked on it, the flag in that incident was stolen from protesters by Michelle Manhart, an Air Force Veteran. Manhart was then videoed having to be forcibly restrained by police after refusing to return the flag to the protester (There are further twists to this story involving Manhart posing in Playboy wrapped in a flag, and Shepherd fleeing from a gun charge, but I shall set both to the side for present purposes.)
This event led to counter protests against Shepherd’s treatment of the flag. These counter-protests got so large that Valdosta closed the campus on April 24 due to safety concerns. By the beginning of May, several news outlets began covering the development of “The Eric Shepherd Challenge” in which young blacks video themselves walking on the American flag to protest racism in the United States.
The reaction to the “challenge” on public media has been widespread and, at times ferocious. As reported by Inside Higher Ed:
Desecrating an American flag has officially been considered protected speech since 1989, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the First Amendment protects symbolic political expression, including burning the American flag. That hasn’t stopped critics on social media and in the conservative press from calling for the students to be punished — or worse.
One Twitter user posted: “If I see anyone I know step on the American flag I will personally shove the flag of another country up their ass.” Others have stated those standing on the flag should be “curb stomped” or have their necks snapped. The most frequent response, however, has been to tell participants in the “challenge” that if they find themselves so critical of American society, they should leave it behind and find somewhere else to live.
Embracing the Paradox of Liberalism
When we take the first of these two stories by itself, it is easy to cast it as a story of Islam vs. the liberal West. Muslims are cast as the odd other, having a strange religious hang up about images of the Prophet, and the West is constructed as the defender of the right to free speech. When taken by itself, the second story too easily becomes a story of racial sectarianism defaming a unifying symbol of liberal American society.
But when we put these two stories together, we should learn something else. We should learn about the ways that liberalism can become a weapon wielded against its own better angels.
It can become a matter of how the right to free speech can be rhetorically deployed as a weapon to offend one minority then rescinded when it is deployed by minorities to challenge the majority, or about the value and the costs of protecting the right to offensive forms of speech that explicitly profane the symbols held as sacred by other members of society.
We should learn about the ways in which these symbols can be used, and literally abused, to amplify the voice of people who lack adequate public representation, and by people who want to marginalize and ostracize less powerful populations. And, we should learn about the deep ambiguity of sacred symbols. The image of the Prophet who represents justice can yet be the triggering factor in bringing about deep violations of justice. The flag that itself represents freedom can literally become the location where the exercise of freedom is least tolerated.
In short, if we wish to avoid hegemonic liberalism, we should be willing to recognize that the symbols of liberal society are not different from other symbols. We should recognize that the anger of seeing the flag defamed is not entirely different in kind from the anger at seeing the image of Mohammad profaned. We should recognize that the potential defaming of these symbols has a role in liberal society, and that this role must be located within a broader context of respect and concern for one another in service to a fostering of fruitful pluralism within the society.
Rejecting hegemonic liberalism in this situation does not leave us with relativism. Rather, it enables us to make more fine grained judgments. In reaction to a local Muslim celebration of peace and coexistence in a majority non-Muslim community,
Geller’s use of speech is clearly more morally repugnant than Shepherd’s. (Imagine if the Black Panthers sponsored a contest awarding $10,000 to the person who could produce the most offensive use of the American flag in response to a meeting of the American Red Cross!)
Reactions to these acts of desecration also differ in moral quality. Manhart was wrong to steal the flag from protesters. And threats of violence against those desecrating the flag are morally repugnant. But these acts pale in comparison to the moral offensiveness of the explicitly violent actions undertaken by Simpson and Soofi.
If we are to live together in a liberal society, we need to find ways both to respect one another’s sacred symbols and also to recognize that we must tolerate, or even respect, the violation of what is sacred to us in order to express moral outrage at the present order of reality. There are no easy shortcuts in negotiating the dilemmas we will face, nor will we always be able to find solutions that come without grave costs.
But the only alternative to living out the paradox of liberalism is to allow liberal society to become its own worst enemy.
Kevin Carnahan holds teaching positions at Central Methodist University in Fayette, Missouri and at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is also the minister at Smith Chapel United Methodist Church in Missouri. He earned his Ph.D. from Southern Methodist University, where he was the recipient of a Dempster Graduate Fellowship from the United Methodist Church and The Schubert Ogden Fellowship for Academic Excellence in Theology. He has written articles for The Journal of Religious Ethics, The Journal of Law and Religion, Political Theology, and PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. He is also author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey: Idealist and Pragmatic Christians on Politics, Philosophy, Religion, and War (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010).